The presiding judge in former North Charleston officer Michael Slager’s trial dismissed the jury for the weekend Friday, just hours after he seemed ready to declare a mistrial over their apparent deadlock.
“We are beat,” said a note from the jury foreman to U.S. District Judge Clifton Newman on Friday evening.
Newman made it clear that jurors could not talk about the case with others or read media accounts of the trial.
The jurors — 11 white and 1 black who is their foreman — had sent out a note earlier in the afternoon stating that all but one member believed Slager guilty. “It’s just one juror that has the issues,” said a note initially believed to be from the jury foreman, but later revealed to be another juror.
The holdout also wrote a lengthy note of his own saying he could not “in good conscience” support a guilty plea. “I still cannot, without a reasonable doubt, convict the defendant,” the note read. “At the same time, my heart does not want to have to tell the Scott family that the man that killed their son, brother and father is innocent.”
However, the foreman appeared to believe the impasse could be broken if the lone juror could get an explanation of the state’s “voluntary manslaughter” precedent, specifically the legal definition of the “passion” that a person is required to experience before they commit the crime. Newman has previously been hesitant to go into greater detail, saying it was part of the conclusion the jury must reach.
It’s not clear if the eleven agreeing jurors believe Slager is guilty of murder or voluntary manslaughter. Defense attorney Andy Savage had sought a mistrial ruling before the court adjourned, arguing he thought the lone juror could be pressured into changing their position. But Judge Newman was unwilling to do so as long as the foreman believed a consensus was possible.
Around 1 p.m., a note asked to re-hear testimony from Feidin Santana, the man who recorded the now-infamous video of Slager shooting Walter Scott as Scott fled through a vacant lot after a April 2015 traffic stop struggle. Judge Newman asked the jury whether re-airing the testimony would help break the deadlock. But the foreman responded, “At this point we don’t need to hear. If we listen, it will not change based on they (sic) juror.”
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys then asked Judge Newman to read an “Allen charge” to the jury that urges them to keep trying until a unanimous decision can be made. Newman noted to the jurors that the case would likely be retried in the future with a different jury, but almost certainly the same arguments and witnesses.
Jurors had deliberated for nearly two entire days before sending out the note. Deliberations began shortly after both sides wrapped up their closing arguments Wednesday evening and continued for much of Thursday and Friday.
On Thursday evening, jurors questioned Judge Clifton Newman about the difference in legal definitions between the words “passion” and “fear.” The distinction is notable because courts have determined “the sudden heat of passion” must be present for a person to be convicted of voluntary manslaughter, while Slager argued he shot Walter Scott in fear. Judge Newman declined to provide an answer Friday, saying that was part of what the jurors needed to determine for themselves.
The shooting received national attention after Santana’s video of it was made public. The video showed Slager firing at Scott as he fled from the pair’s struggle, which contradicted what the officer had told his superiors. Specifically, Slager had said at the time he fired after Scott grabbed his Taser and pointed it at him. During his trial, Slager still maintained the Taser struggle occurred, but ended seconds before the bystander was able to focus his phone’s camera on the pair. (The Taser can be seen falling to the ground as the camera focuses).
Slager’s attorneys had focused on Scott’s actions during the traffic stop in an effort to portray Scott as unstable. The officer had pulled Scott, who was driving a neighbor’s car, over into a small parking lot for a brake light that was not working. The officer spoke briefly with Scott and got his license, but dashcam video showed Scott suddenly bolted down a side street as Slager ran his license. Slager chased after him.
Prosecutors and family members have suggested Scott was nervous about unpaid child support and thought he would be arrested. Defense attorneys have challenged that as speculation, noting the cocaine levels an autopsy found in Scott’s body and suggesting he could have been acting irrationally.
“This shooting did not happen in a vacuum. Mr. Scott did not get shot because he had a broken taillight,” Slager’s attorney Andy Savage told the jury. “Mr. Scott was shot because of what he did on April 4.”
But prosecutors insist none of Scott’s actions should have led a “reasonable person” to conclude he was a danger. “Provocation is not the same as justification,” Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson told the jury. “Just because someone was provoked doesn’t give them license to do whatever they want whenever they want.”
Much of the trial’s speculation hinged on the struggle between officer and suspect after Slager caught up to Scott in a vacant lot roughly 200 yards away. Both sides agree a struggle took place and that Slager fired at least two Taser charges at Scott while attempting to subdue him. Defense attorneys argue the struggle was a fight between the two, pointing to dirt and cuts along Slager’s body. Prosecutors say the evidence on scene suggests Scott was simply trying to get away from the Taser. They note Slager never made claims that Scott had been on top of him or hit him until after charges were filed.
Savage also criticized potential problems in how the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) handled its investigation, noting the agency missed evidence on scene (specifically bullet casings the attorneys found themselves after SLED finished processing the site) and did not check for fingerprints on the Taser, despite Slager’s consistent claims that Scott had grabbed it in the struggle.